The Wellesley Farmers Market, which was about to enter its third season, has been put on hold while organizers rethink the market’s location and time slot after seeing lower-than-expected attendance during its first two years.
The decision to suspend the nonprofit market was made as some backers said the town should step up and play an active role in helping it succeed, while local officials said Wellesley has no business being involved with a private operation.
Phyllis Theermann, who serves on the market’s steering committee, said its location in the Whole Foods parking lot in Wellesley Hills, and its operating hours of 2 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays led to a less-than-stellar turnout the last two years.
The farmers market had 10 to 12 vendors that typically drew about 200 visitors each week, she said, but organizers were aiming to see 300 or more.
“We need to figure out how to get more folks to come,” Theermann said. “We want a more convenient time spot and a location that’s more visible. We want to make it more accessible to more people, and more enjoyable.”
The outdoor market is not the first in Wellesley’s recent history. Jeff Cole, executive director of the Waltham-based Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, said a similar operation opened in Wellesley in the late 1990s but only survived a few years due in part to “unnecessary red tape” from town government.
“It closed specifically for a lack of municipal support,” Cole said.
He said town officials were unwilling to bend or revisit bylaws that would have helped the market thrive, such as allowing organizers to post signs directing traffic to the event, and they also pressured the location’s owners to change the time or site of the market.
“Every municipality decides what their enforcement practices are, and they made decisions that made the market’s life much harder,” Cole said, noting that the “most successful markets have some municipal involvement and support.”
Bryan Austin, owner of one of the market’s vendors, Dover Farm, said he also wished the town made more of an effort to publicize the event.
“It really has to be backed by the town — to put up signs, to advertise, and encourage people to use it,” Austin said. “It’s not that they discouraged it, but there wasn’t any community awareness.”
However, the town’s executive director, Hans Larsen, said the farmers market is a private operation.
“I think it’s consistent with how a number of things are done in Wellesley,” Larsen said, noting the market is not held on town property as are other markets, such as one in Newton, and was launched as a Massachusetts Horticultural Society project. “We recognize these farmers markets effectively compete with each other.
“We don’t view this as something the town should be expending further resources on at this time. We don’t have the funds available in the town to provide financial support.”
The Wellesley Farmers Market has largely been supported by Gravestar Inc., which owns the Whole Foods lot on Washington Street, Theermann said. But even if the market were to cut ties with the location — and thus lose support from Gravestar — it would not hurt for money, Theermann said.
“I don’t think funding would be an issue,” she said. “We’ve been talking to other people and organizations. I think that we could make it happen. We want to do it our way.”
Gravestar representatives could not be reached for comment.
However, money has been an issue for Austin, who set up a stand at the Wellesley market each week last season.
“A farm should make $1,000 in one day’s work at a farmers market — that’s considered a successful market,” he said. “But we were doing one-third of that, which would just pay for costs to get there, labor to pick, and labor to staff it. It wasn’t enough revenue for profit.”
Austin said one reason for the low attendance and profits was the market’s proximity to Whole Foods, which offers perishable food like milk, cheese, and meats that a weekly outdoor venue can’t realistically offer.
“It was just a tough location,” he said. “It was so much easier for the customer to go into the store. And people driving by wouldn’t really see it.”
Without the Wellesley market in operation this year, Dover Farm, which specializes in fresh produce and chicken eggs, would participate in one being held at Grace Church of Dover, Austin said.
“The Wellesley market was so close for us, it was just five minutes from our farm, which is why we stayed with it,” he said. “It’s too bad. We kept thinking that maybe it will get better.”
Theermann said she hopes the market will do just that. She envisions a highly visible market in a central location, with robust vendor and customer attendance, as well as activities and attractions to draw customers.
“We want it to be a central part of the community,” she said. “It takes a long time to build that feel. We just need to think about making it better.”
Over the past decade, farmers markets have become the darlings of the local agriculture movement, both in Massachusetts and throughout the country.
From 2004 to 2009, the number of farmers markets in Massachusetts grew from about 100 to 240 to meet the demand for locally produced food, said Cole, head of the nonprofit Mass. Farmers Markets. This season, there are about 255, he said.
“At the end of the day, the real reason farmers markets are enamoring to communities is because of the socialization they bring,” he said.